Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Zefat, Israel

Friends: At last, after three weeks of wild-camping all over Israel, even on the outskirts of Jerusalem, a group of Israeli soldiers on patrol stumbled upon me in the middle of the night. Having been undetected until now I was concerned they had let their guard down.

I was camped along the Syrian border on the Golan Heights, an area that Israel had annexed during the 1967 Six-Day War and defended in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and as recently as the summer of 2006 defended against assault. I had set up my tent behind a cluster of bombed-out buildings. I had chosen the site as a defense against the winds, strong and consistent enough for there to be a string of wind generators nearby, never a good sign for the touring cyclist.

The wind can blow from four directions and only one is favorable for he who is pedaling. This was not one of those occasions when it was even close to being in my favor. I had earned every one of my miles before I set up camp, not only from battling the wind but also from climbing up from the Sea of Galilee, below sea level to nearly 4,000 feet, the highest I'd been on this trip. I was drained enough to stop the earliest I had, a couple of hours before dark, unable to resist
the shelter these buildings offered, actually doubling back to them when I saw the terrain ahead
remained rugged and rocky with few trees and the wind growing colder and more formidable.

I opted to camp behind these buildings so I wouldn't have to listen to my rain fly flapping against my tent all night in the wind. I was closing in on Mt. Hermon, at 7,000 feet the highest mountain in Israel, up in its northeast corner. It shares the mountain with Lebanon and Syria. Its highest peak is 9,000 feet in Syria. It is Israel's lone ski resort. There was a dirt road near where I was camped and I heard an occasional vehicle rumble past before and after dark, though none interrupted my sleep. It was the bright flashlights of the soldiers blasting through my tent that woke me. My bike was by my tent, a signal of neutrality like the UN plastered on all sides of white vans and cars that are evident all over the country, so the soldiers were in no great panic.
They were more curious than anything, wanting to see my passport and wondering if I knew I was so close to Syria. They also asked if I had been in any Arabic countries. Otherwise I was neither scolded nor reprimanded nor ordered to be gone.

The wind died during the night and remained calm the next day. The only strain was some more climbing. Five miles away was the Valley of Tears, a monument to a cataclysmic battle during the Yom Kippur War where the Israelis destroyed some 500 Syrian tanks and vehicles, the heart of the Syrian assault. Particularly honored was an Israeli commander who stood off three tanks. A couple of the Syrian tanks remain at the site. There was also a small grove of trees planted around one, each with a plaque honoring a fallen Israeli. The two mile recently paved road to the site was surrounded by acres and acres of vineyards with a few bunkers and pillboxes scattered amongst them. Clouds drifted past the snow-streaked Mount Hermon in the near distance.

Descending from the Golan Heights I had a spectacular vista of the upper Galilee valley, a great
agricultural belt of apple and peach and pomegranate orchards. From the city of Kiryat Shomona I climbed five miles to Metula, the northern-most city in Israel on the Lebanon border. The border crossing, called the Good Fence, has been closed since 2000. Metula is a small resort city where Israelis can go to escape the summer heat. It was founded by the Rothschilds. There are quite a few buildings and projects around the country funded by the Rothschilds, including the Parliament in Jerusalem. The word Rothschild is synonymous with extreme wealth in Israel. The Hebrew lyrics to the song, "If I were a rich man," from "Fiddler on a Roof" are "If I were a Rothschild."

The country's largest ice rink is in Metula, donated by a Canadian couple. It is called the Canadian Center. There was also a basketball court in the center with a locker room where I was able to get a shower. I had been denied earlier in the day at a national park camp ground, as it was too early in the season for it to be open. I haven't had success in being allowed to shower in some hostels without paying for a full night's lodging, as hot water is an expensive commodity.

A guy at a service station recommended a new, better graded road to the town of Zefat, the highest town in Israel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I had one of my better campsites of the trip in an open cow pasture full of blooming wild flowers. I had to climb over a gate to reach it, something I did quite often while biking through Texas. But it was at dusk and there looked like little evidence that the dirt road was much used. I just hoped for no rain during the night,
as such a dirt road could turn into a quagmire, as I had suffered a couple times on this trip.

The guy who recommended the road was wearing a pink rubber bracelet with Hebrew on it. I asked him its significance. "Have you heard of Lance Armstrong?" he replied, easily the most stupid question I have ever been asked in my life. I simply raised my sleeve and revealed my yellow Livestrong bracelet. His bracelet had nothing to do with Lance or cancer, only that this
guy knew that Lance had inspired a zillion spin-offs for countless different causes. This one had to do with bus drivers paying attention to traffic. The roads are full of buses--not only tour buses, but the Israeli version of Greyhound, Egged, the second largest bus service in the world after Greyhound. Every traveler I have met has raved at how good its service is. There are frequent buses everywhere and reasonably priced. Still, I've seen more hitch-hikers here than anywhere I've been, and frequently in the act of being picked up, as they don't appear to have to wait very long to get a lift.

Later, George

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